Nosocomial Infections: Definition, Causes & Prevention

In this lesson, you will learn about what a nosocomial infection is. We’ll discuss, in particular, the many reasons you may get such an infection, which types of pathogens are most likely to cause one, and the most common places in your body you may acquire one.

Getting Sick at the Hospital

In an emergency, such as a terrible car crash, the first place anyone is going to think of rushing to is the hospital. With all of that blood and all of those broken bones, whichever unfortunate individual was in the crash is going to need some massive help.

And, while by no means would I ever claim or suggest that it’s ever a good idea to not go to a hospital when you need to, you must keep in mind that you might get sick while at the hospital with something you didn’t have prior to entering one.

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A Nosocomial Infection

I mean, it’s not that hard to imagine. The people that go to the hospital are the people that are sick. Many diseases love to be in confined areas, such as buildings, since it allows them to spread far more easily amongst a population, especially when there may be many people.

This is easy to explain. Think of a game of tag where you are trying to tag your friends. It would be much easier to tag your friends in the confined space of a building than it would be in an open-air, 1,000-acre estate. Pathogens use this same exact principle to their advantage.

So, when you go to the hospital, you might get sick precisely because of that. A hospital-acquired infection is more technically known as a nosocomial infection. There’s more than one reason why someone may get an infection or disease they never had prior to entering the hospital.

Weakened Immune System

First of all, you entered a hospital probably because you were sick or injured. In either one of those cases, your immune system is going to be compromised by the injury or disease.

For example, when a virus does battle with your immune system, you can think of your immune system as an army trying to fight off this infective agent, the virus. If the army’s resources are diverted to fighting off the virus, then another pathogen, like a bacterium, can sneak in behind the army and damage your body. You only have so many resources within your body to fight off so many pathogens. Eventually, something has to give and you may succumb to a secondary or opportunistic infection in the hospital due to a weakened immune system.

If, however, you aren’t sick but have an injury like an open wound, then it’s not hard to imagine how you may get another disease. Your skin is one of the most precious and important barriers from infection. If you have an open wound due to a burn or broken bone, then all sorts of microbes can just jump right in like into a swimming pool, swim all over your body, and cause you massive problems.

Disinfection and Resistance

Another big reason you may get an infection on top of what I already described is down to poor hospital practices. For example, if hospital staff doesn’t try to prevent a nosocomial infection from developing or spreading by properly washing their hands, disinfecting or sterilizing equipment, floors, or even the air in the hospital, that will only serve to increase the likelihood that disease-causing pathogens will be allowed to roam the hospital freely. Again, those pathogens will take advantage of the fact that you are already sick.

On top of all of that, there’s something even worse going on in hospitals. Hospitals are a great place to encounter antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These bacteria are essentially immune to the typical drugs (antibiotics) designed to kill it. If they infect you during your hospital stay because your immune system is weak or because improper hospital sanitation practices are being followed, then you’ll be in for one heck of a fight. Sometimes, you’ll be fighting for your life.

Common Nosocomial Infections

You’ll also be fighting against some of the most common hospital-acquired infections around. I can’t possibly list all of them in this lesson but will list the most famous or common ones that are encountered. They include:

  • Staphylococcus aureus, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA for short
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa
  • Coliform bacteria, such as E. coli
  • Enterococcus
  • Tuberculosis
  • Clostridium

And many more.

The way I remember the top four is pretty easy with a little crazy rhyme:

A dangerous collie (coli-form) enters (enter-ococcus) the hospital,

Under a pseudonym (pseud-omonas) to get people sick,

But, the staff (staph-ylococcus) tell it to leave,

By giving it a really swift kick.

Well, these and many other pathogens causing nosocomial infections primarily do so in the urinary tract, area of surgical incision, and the respiratory tract.

Lesson Summary

As you can tell, this lesson is all about a perfect storm of what causes a hospital-acquired infection. When you combine sick people with resistant pathogens in a walled off and potentially poorly cleaned environment, you have a recipe for disaster on your hands.

This perfect storm can lead to a hospital-acquired infection, which is more technically known as a nosocomial infection. And, some of the most common agents that cause nosocomial infections include:

  • Staphylococcus aureus, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA for short
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa
  • Coliform bacteria, such as E. coli
  • Enterococcus.

The agents that cause nosocomial infections primarily do so in the urinary tract, area of surgical incision, and the respiratory tract.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve completed this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Realize what a nosocomial infection and explain how one is acquired
  • List common agents that cause these infections
  • Identify where in the body nosocomial agents typically enter to cause infection
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